HC Deb 17 October 1995 vol 264 cc145-62 3.31 pm
The Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. John Gummer)

I am pleased to present to the House today the Government's White Paper "Rural England: A Nation Committed to a Living Countryside". This has been produced jointly by my own Department and that of my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but with the close co-operation and participation of all Government Departments and countryside agencies. Scotland and Wales will produce their own papers.

When we started on this venture, we undertook to consider together the economic, social and environmental aspects of country life, building on the principles set out in the sustainable development strategy. This was an ambitious task, but the goal of sustainable development requires that we look at such subjects in the round. This White Paper does just that.

The White Paper sets out the role of Government alongside that of the many others who share influence over the future of rural life. It strikes a proper balance between the many competing pressures on our rural life and landscape. It embodies our determination not to allow the countryside to be turned into a museum piece. It sets out how the countryside can continue its economic success and remain a living, working place. It marks a new phase in environmental protection. It shows our determination to protect and enhance the countryside for its own sake. It emphasises the diversity within our rural areas, and demonstrates our commitment to real subsidiarity.

Sustainable development is about the right way in which to achieve economic development, not about stopping it. All our aspirations for rural areas depend on a secure and diverse economic base. The Government's root economic policies—more competition, less regulation and sensible planning—have brought huge benefits to the rural economy, as elsewhere. Rural enterprise is flourishing. The rate of growth of small business has far exceeded the national average. Unemployment is lower. New jobs are rapidly replacing the old, as advances in communications and in transport transform our notion of what is remote.

However, success must not lead to complacency. We need further diversification, and we need to see the benefits of this reach to all parts of the countryside—as the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Raynsford) will no doubt know from his rural experience.

The White Paper therefore contains a number of measures to strengthen the competitiveness of rural businesses and to promote economic diversification in ways which respect the environment. Perhaps most notably, we shall revise planning policy guidance note 7—the main rural planning guidance note—to encourage greater re-use of rural buildings for business rather than residential purposes; we shall consult on the introduction of a new rural business use class within the planning system, in order further to encourage appropriate rural enterprise; and we will continue our drive against unnecessary regulation and over-zealous enforcement of those regulations which are necessary.

At the same time, we should defend the green belt, restrain out-of-town shopping developments and, by the regeneration of our inner cities, ensure that as much new building as possible takes place in our towns.

We shall also continue to safeguard a viable and competitive agriculture. Although no longer the predominant rural employer, farming remains a dynamic and essential industry. It supports a range of ancillary supply industries and provides raw materials for food processing. Agriculture remains the most important influence on the appearance of most of our countryside. Its continued viability will remain crucial for the achievement of many conservation objectives.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made clear the Government's view that producers and consumers alike would benefit from further, fundamental reform of the common agricultural policy in the direction of freer markets. The White Paper reaffirms that belief, and with it the Government's commitment to ensure that care for the environment is central to the future development of the CAP.

The White Paper also places great emphasis on diversity. Conservative Members will welcome the fact that we set out to respect and enhance that diversity, not to stamp upon it. Rural England is not one homogeneous entity, but a glorious mixture. A wide range of local circumstances create a wide range of local needs. These needs are best known, and therefore best dealt with, by the people most directly concerned.

Accordingly, the Government propose to test new ways of increasing local influence over local issues and enhancing the role of parish councils, particularly in crime prevention, community transport and the management of local footpaths.

The White Paper contains a number of additional measures and commitments to help meet the need for high-quality rural services, and to improve their accessibility to those who most need them. Quality and accessibility do not always rest easily together, yet the Government are determined to improve both. To this end, we shall launch a rural charter initiative to help ensure that service providers meet the needs of their rural as well as their urban customers.

Without doubt, there is great potential in the application of information technology. This has implications right across the board—for education, for medicine, for the viability of local post offices, for work patterns and for transport needs. Use of such technology is already spreading fast, a process which has been greatly assisted by our resolute determination to introduce greater competition into the communication markets.

I should like to comment particularly on two crucial aspects of community life—the village store and local housing. There is no true substitute for local shops, which so often form the hub of a small community. While ultimately it is only customers who can guarantee their future, the general store and post office do have a particular importance in village life, and I am sure that the House will agree that it is right both to recognise that status and to seek to bolster it wherever practicable.

I am therefore announcing today that we intend further to safeguard the position of the traditional village store, and that we shall shortly consult on a new business rate relief scheme specifically targeted to benefit these stores. This last measure may require legislation, but in the meantime we shall encourage local authorities to use the discretion they already have in the area to help the retention of village stores.

Similarly, the need for affordable housing is particularly keenly felt in rural areas, and we therefore wish to see more land brought forward for rented housing for local people. Our consultations identified four main constraints on this, and the White Paper addresses every one of these constraints.

First, the Government will reinforce their exceptions policy, so that affordable housing can be built outside the normal village envelope. Secondly, the Rural Development Commission will extend its support for so-called rural housing enablers, helping to guide interested landowners through the necessary agreements with housing associations and others.

Thirdly, we shall give the Housing Corporation greater flexibility to enhance its grant rates where that is necessary for rural schemes. I can give an assurance today that, in rural areas, developments built for local low-cost rented accommodation now will remain available for local low-cost rented accommodation in the future.

The White Paper emphasises the inter-relationship between economic development and environmental protection. It has much to say about safeguarding the countryside's natural resources—its water, its soil, its minerals, its habitats and wildlife, its woodland. In the case of forestry, it sets out a new target for doubling woodland cover over the next half century.

The White Paper marks a transition between two great phases of conservation policy making. The Government intend in future to complement the present system of area designations with new ways of enriching the quality of the wider countryside. We are not content merely to protect the wildlife that we already have; we aim to reverse that decline through the biodiversity action plan that is being advanced in parallel with this rural White Paper.

We shall give high priority to providing extra funding for the countryside stewardship scheme. Countryside stewardship will become the main axis of our practical conservation policy, and will be expanded to target new habitats and landscape features.

It is not for us to impose a national blueprint upon rural life, or to attempt a proliferation of local blueprints. Rather, it is our task to set a broad policy framework that maximises the opportunity for local initiative and responsibility, while ensuring that legitimate national objectives can be met and that the genuine public interest is properly protected.

In addition, the Government take seriously the task of ensuring that the rural voice is not drowned out by the metropolitan megaphone, and that rural tradition and local opinion are not stifled by sophisticated national pressure groups. To that end, we shall expand the remit of the Cabinet Committee on the Environment so that its task will he continually to consider the rural dimension of policy-making right across Whitehall. We intend to follow up the White Paper's proposals swiftly, and will report on progress next year.

The rural White Paper is a landmark statement on rural policy. I commend it to the House.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

Does the Secretary of State remember telling his party conference last week that this rural White Paper would start with humility? So it should, for the Government have failed our rural communities.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, under the Conservatives, unemployment and crime have increased faster in our rural areas than elsewhere? Rural homelessness has more than doubled, and low pay is more prevalent than in our towns. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that village schools have closed, and that other essential local services have been lost—that our market towns and local shops have borne the brunt of the Government's past planning mistakes over out-of-town shopping centres?

As for the White Paper itself, let me deal first with housing. I welcome the Secretary of State's concession on exemptions to the right to buy for housing associations, and note what he just said about Housing Corporation grants; but how does he hope to ensure the building of an adequate number of much-needed homes for rent—particularly if he still refuses to allow local authorities to spend the millions of pounds raised from council house sales?

Then there is agriculture. I welcome the restatement of the plan to expand the countryside stewardship scheme; but only this year the Government scrapped the farm conservation grant schemes that helped farmers to combat pollution and to implement environmental improvement plans. How, then, can the Secretary of State assure us that today's recycled announcement is not just another thin coat of green paint that will be quickly scratched off in the spending round?

It was only two and a half years ago that the right hon. Gentleman, as Minister of Agriculture, was telling us that the reformed common agricultural policy was all his own work. Can he confirm that today's remarks on the CAP mean that the Government are now moving towards the policy that the Labour party has been advocating for some years—that price support payments should go, and that fair support for agriculture should be placed alongside new investment in the rural economy and environment?

Is the Secretary of State seriously seeking to encourage the selling off of more county council smallholdings? Is he not aware that the policy of both the agricultural workers union and the National Farmers Union is that those smallholdings should be retained?

Finally, on transport, is the Secretary of State aware that there has been a disastrous collapse in bus services in many rural areas? Local bus passenger journeys outside London have declined by more than a quarter since deregulation. How does the right hon. Gentleman expect to make a significant impact on the desperate shortage of transport services in rural areas if he continues to back deregulation? Will he also accept that the Government's deeply unpopular rail privatisation plans would pose a threat to rural stations and rural services in particular?

Has not the Government's recent agenda shown just how out of touch they have become with rural communities, as witness their proposals to privatise the Post Office and the Forestry Commission. and to abolish the agricultural wages boards? Labour fought successfully with rural communities against all those proposals. Does the Secretary of State accept that, while the Government have failed our rural communities, it is the Labour party that is addressing the real needs of people in the countryside? That is why so many Conservative MEPs and councillors have lost their seats to Labour in the past 18 months.

Of course we shall consider this White Paper carefully and with interest. Above all, however, is it not a recognition of 16 years of Government failure?

Mr. Gummer

I shall resist the temptation to indulge in party politicking, although it seems a bit thick for the Labour party to say that it is a rural party when it cannot even allow its shadow Environment Secretary to reply to a statement by the Secretary of State for the Environment. That is because the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman knows so little about rural life that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Dr. Strang) has to answer instead. I am surprised that he knows so little about England that he does not even realise that village schools in Warwickshire, and in Stratford-on-Avon in particular, are being closed at the instigation of Labour-controlled Warwickshire county council.

I am also surprised that the hon. Gentleman should dare to talk about agriculture as he does. I note that he has to fill in for the entire Labour agriculture Front-Bench group-but, as they represent Deptford, Camden and agricultural Greenwich, one can understand why that is necessary.

When talking about agriculture, the subject that he is supposed to know about, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East seems to have missed the fact that the reform of the CAP put support for environmentally friendly farming at its centre, whereas it had been a peripheral, add-on extra. That is the reform that we carried through, with precious little support from the Labour party, whose members, in so far as they were able to understand the rural dimension, did nothing to support rural people, farmers and farm workers.

As for county council smallholdings, the hon. Gentleman should have checked the facts. The number of county council smallholdings which act as a ladder into agriculture, as they were intended to do, is infinitesimal, which is why we believe that using the resources for other rural purposes is a higher priority for improving the rural economy. That comes from a party that knows about rural areas, not a party that merely visits them occasionally at weekends.

The one thing that will give us the rail services we need in rural areas, as in the East Suffolk line in my constituency, is the privatisation of rail services, which will enable us to direct the subsidy for the very services we want, rather than the subsidy being lost in the general cost of what was British Rail, when one could not see where that money was used, and certainly did not find it used in rural areas.

What an amazing statement about the privatisation of the Post Office. Most, if not all, rural post offices are privatised. The hon. Gentleman has never been in a rural post office if he thinks that they are nationalised. Rural post offices are run by rural postmasters and postmistresses. They were overwhelmingly in favour of Post Office privatisation because it—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I am afraid they were. Opposition Members do not listen to rural people, so they do not know. Greenwich appears to be so far from the country that they have not even heard what rural postmasters and postmistresses have said. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East knows nothing about rural areas, cares less about them and should not have replied to the statement.

Sir Peter Hordern (Horsham)

My right hon. Friend will know that there has been much concern in rural areas about the prospect of the sale of council houses to their tenants on land that has been given to the village at less than the market price. May I take it from my right hon. Friend's statement that that position is now safeguarded, and that it will be possible for gifts of land or sales of land at less than the market price to be made to the local community in which council house tenants may be kept with no right to buy?

Mr. Gummer

That is true, and the effect of the exceptions policy, which allows land to come forward which would not otherwise be allowed for development, will, of course, be the interreaction with that, making the situation in settlements of less than 3,000 people unique. It is not something that happens elsewhere, but it does happen there and we want to safeguard it.

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro)

The Secretary of State will note that, although there are many warm words in the White Paper, the real test will be in the Budget which is yet to come. For example, will there be money to restore the cuts in rural housing association funding for new build in relation to the homes that he talked about in rural communities?

Will the current review of sparsity factors which the Department is undertaking lead to big cuts in rural council funding, as those councils expect? Will there be funding to councils to give rate relief to local post offices and to small businesses in village centres that he talks about, and will he respond to the call by his own Conservative party activists at his conference, who do know rural areas and who asked for the cap to be lifted on local rural councils?

Mr. Gummer

I think that the hon. Gentleman should know that the review of the sparsity factor was asked for by Labour councils in association with Liberal councils—in most counties, the difference is difficult to see. They are working closely hand in hand in ruining our rural areas and supporting urban areas instead.

That is what is happening in my county, where Ipswich is the only part that counts and rural areas have been betrayed by Labour and Liberal councillors together. I find it difficult to take the hon. Member's views on rural areas seriously when we note what is actually happening in rural county councils controlled by his party alone or in coalition with the Labour party, where they have given way to the megaphone of the towns instead of supporting the needs of the countryside. He will find out what is in the Budget when the Budget comes.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

I warmly welcome the White Paper. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a profitable agriculture is a prerequisite of enhancing and beautifying the countryside and looking after the habitat? With my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, will he do all he can to achieve just that within the CAP?

Mr. Gummer

Of course. The battle to ensure that we did not have the MacSharry plan, which would have made our agriculture unprofitable and which in many regions was supported by Opposition parties, involved an

important change of attitude, but we still have not moved far enough into a situation in which farmers are supported for looking after the land in an environmentally friendly way. We still have too much weight on production support; I look forward to a CAP that moves closer to selling goods at a proper price level and to providing help for farmers to farm in a way that enhances the countryside.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

Will the Secretary of State tell us how much it will cost, where the money will come from and who will pay?

Mr. Gummer

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will read every word of the White Paper, where he will see very clearly that, instead of the usual Labour party view that one can solve all problems by throwing money at them, we have shown that, by changing the nature of the way in which we look at the countryside, and by building on what we are already spending and what we have already done, we can make a huge difference to the countryside. The hon. Gentleman has not yet had an opportunity to read what is a long, complicated and extremely interesting report. I hope that he will do so, and that when he does he will not make such off-the-cuff remarks.

Sir Anthony Grant (Cambridgeshire, South-West)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that his support and encouragement of village stores and his resistance to what I call supermarket mania will be widely welcomed in Cambridgeshire? Will my right hon. Friend address an entirely different matter which is of great concern in what is the fastest growing county in the country and the one with the worst road accident record? Will my right hon. Friend look at the problem of development where, in the case of the crazy proposals in the so-called Cambourn development, thousands more vehicles will be thrown on to a road that is already extremely dangerous? Will my right hon. Friend please discuss that serious problem with those in the Department of Transport?

Mr. Gummer

We will have to see some development in the countryside. I hope that we can change the social conditions whereby, because of the break-up of marriages, more and more units of accommodation are demanded for the same population. That is one of the serious matters that must concern us. We are talking about perhaps a further 2 million homes. I want to see the majority of those—as many as possible—in the centres of our cities. I want to see the re-use of brown land where there is the necessary infrastructure.

I must tell my hon. Friend that there is to be consultation about how we will meet those requirements. One of the issues that will be raised is that of new settlements and the roads that service them. I hope that my hon. Friend will play a part in that consultation.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington)

The Secretary of State is always pressing the Labour party on how much our programmes will cost. Can we have a clear answer to a simple question? How much will it cost to meet all those promises made to the British people? How much taxpayers' money will be spent in supporting this statement? Let us have a clear answer to the question.

Mr. Gummer

A clear answer to the question is that a large amount of that money is already being spent.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

How much?

Mr. Gummer

There will be more money spent in these areas, but most of what is in the White Paper, as the hon. Gentleman will see when he reads it, is about an entire change in the way in which we look at our rural areas and making sure that the attitudes of rural people are reflected in Government policy, so that money which in the past has not come to rural areas will come to them, and so that the services of service providers, not necessarily the Government, are offered in rural areas as well as urban areas.

The White Paper has a wider range of proposals, not just for Government and local government, but for institutions outside, than any comparable White Paper. The fact that the hon. Gentleman made that comment shows that he has not yet had a chance to read the report. I hope that, when he has, he will not bother to ask that question.

Mrs. Ann Winterton (Congleton)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his White Paper, and warmly welcome many of its provisions. I particularly welcome the business rate relief scheme announced today for rural post offices and general stores, which will be very welcome in the rural areas of my constituency. In addition, I welcome the fact that affordable housing in villages will remain in the rented sector. However, like the issues that arise in smallholding, how will my right hon. Friend address the fact that, sadly, it may mean that housing is allocated once and once only? Will there be some sort of mechanism to ensure that those who become more prosperous use such housing as a first step rather than as an end-of-the-road home, if I may put it that way?

Mr. Gummer

My hon. Friend is right to point to that, and it is why we have a series of policies which enable those who wish to buy their own home to do so on the open market with some help, in place of what would otherwise be a discount on the house on which they have paid rent over the years. As I have already announced, those schemes will be expanded and they will be available to many of those about whom we have been talking. We want those who live and who are brought up in the countryside to be able to continue to live there. The problem in many small villages is that there is no alternative space because of the strict planning provisions. Therefore, it is better to make provision for people to buy on the open market in those circumstances.

Mr. John D. Taylor (Strangford)

Many of the proposals in the White Paper should be welcomed by the House. On the question of restraining out-of-town shopping developments, does the Secretary of State accept that one of the problems for retail developers is the difficulty in acquiring central sites in our towns and cities that require regeneration? Has he any further proposals to facilitate and ease the acquisition of such sites in the inner parts of our towns and cities?

The business rate relief for village stores is very welcome indeed, and I hope that it will be pursued. Will the right hon. Gentleman consult the Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Northern Ireland to ensure that village stores throughout the whole of the United Kingdom can benefit from that measure?

Mr. Gummer

I shall certainly do the latter, if the right hon. Gentleman would like me to do so. On his comment about the provision of central sites, we hope to persuade local authorities to take a much more active part in that, not only in helping with the assembly of land, but in being much more sensible about the provision of car parking. I am afraid that some local authorities have sought to second-guess those who wish to develop in the centre of towns by saying how much car parking they, the local authorities, think is suitable—when, after all, often the developer has built many large supermarkets throughout the country, and knows perfectly well how many car parking places are necessary.

I also hope that local authorities will recognise that the provision of car parking is much better done by those who have an interest in it, such as the retailing sector, than by the local authority, where money for the car park is often spread over many years, refurbishment does not take place and, consequently, the car parking is not acceptable, and people go to out-of-town stores instead.

Mr. Harold Elletson (Blackpool, North)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his determination to protect the green belt, to discourage the development of out-of-town shopping centres, and to encourage the development of brown land in our towns and cities. While most people would warmly welcome measures that develop business in rural areas, will he ensure that any relaxation of planning restrictions in countryside areas outside the green belt does not assist the sort of massive over-development of the countryside that is currently being planned by local authorities such as Lancashire county council in its draft structure plan, which will eat up 6,000 acres of Lancashire countryside?

Mr. Gummer

Some of what I have seen of Lancashire county council belies the Labour party's comments about concern for the countryside. Lancashire county council has not shown any such concern under its current Labour control.

I am not suggesting any relaxation of planning arrangements, except in the following senses. First, when a local authority refuses planning permission for the re-use of an existing building, it should say what it believes the building could be used for. It cannot simply take a negative attitude; there must be a positive attempt to find a proper use for the building. Secondly, I believe that, in every case possible, such a building is better used for the provision of jobs than turned into another rural home. That was its original use in most cases, and it is one of the ways by which we can bring greater work into the countryside.

I hope that a more sensible attitude will be taken towards allowing people to begin businesses, whether in back kitchens, outhouses or the like. Often, some over-zealous local authorities prevent that, and demand that people should go to the local industrial estate—

Mr. Terry Davis (Birmingham, Hodge Hill)

Come on.

Mr. Gummer

It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to say that, but many of us who know about rural areas have had that sort of experience. I have no intention of permitting a general relaxation of planning arrangements.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. If I am to call all hon. Members who are interested in the statement, questions must be brisker and answers must be equally brisk; otherwise, many hon. Members will be disappointed today.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

The Minister was speaking about buildings. I would like to ask him about police stations. Across a whole swathe of rural Lancashire, in towns such as Barnoldswick and Clitheroe which serve the rural areas, police stations are being closed. The police are telling the public that they have to choose between having a police station closed or having policemen or women on the beat.

Is it the case, and is the Minister advising, that police stations should double up with fire stations, parish councils, Co-ops and perhaps post offices, to ensure that the police station is a presence in the countryside?

Mr. Gummer

I do not think that I suggested any of those possibilities. It seems that the promise of 5,000 further policemen and the fact that we are suggesting in the rural White Paper a considerable increase in the number of special constables in rural areas, especially those who have a connection with a particular village, shows that we put the emphasis where it ought to be: bobbies on the beat, bobbies in the village, and a feeling that there is someone there doing the job, which is what most rural people want.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Mid-Kent)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the biggest threat to the countryside is the tremendous outspill from the big cities? The building of at least 10,000 new houses in Maidstone over the next 20 years is threatened. Does he agree that we should look at the possibility of creating new whole villages rather than simply chicken-pox development around the local area?

Mr. Gummer

In the consultation paper with which we will be proceeding early in the new year, that is obviously one of the issues that we will have to discuss. I happen to think that we also have to deal with the root cause: we need more and more units of accommodation for every thousand of the population, not only because people live longer or go away from home earlier, but simply because marriages break up so much more often. We must consider that issue in a serious way as a nation.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

May I ask, as one who represents a constituency of more than 500 square miles, whether the Minister is aware that most people in those villages and small towns would take the view that he could hardly wipe away in a single statement one afternoon 16 years of unregulated market forces, which have caused damage and blight in many of those villages? I refer in particular, but not only in that respect, to those massive supermarket and hypermarket developments.

I also draw the Minister's attention to the fact that, for most people in about 100 constituencies in Britain where rural life is important, he ought to put a stop to all those new green field opencast applications. I do not suppose for a minute that there is anything in the White Paper to put a stop to that.

Mr. Gummer

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would want me to join him in saying that I am entirely supportive of the 16 years, which saw the major changes in our rural society brought about by the environmentally sensitive areas—a system copied throughout Europe and the world. It has meant that large sums of money have gone into the rural environment, and that the Environment Agency has been set up after the very successful setting up of the National Rivers Authority.

In the past 16 years, more attention has been given to our rural areas than perhaps in any time since the war. So I have nothing to be ashamed of from the past, but I want to do better in the future and to build on the excellence of the past. We are recognised throughout Europe for the excellence of our rural policy, and we wish to continue that. We do not have desertification in our rural areas: we have people moving in, so good is the policy.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

I welcome the Secretary of State's emphasis on local decision taking, and his wish to see the countryside protected. Does he agree that he should look again at the way in which the five-year supply of land is calculated, and base it more on market experience—the number of houses people want to build and can sell—and rather less on the apocalyptic dreams of his officials about the likely collapse of the family? Surely, as members of the party of the family, we should support the family, not forecast its demise.

Mr. Gummer

I have scaled down as far as is humanly possible the concerns of a county such as Berkshire, for example. But the figure which Berkshire has agreed to accept of 40,000 homes is significantly less than the number which has been proposed by most of the authorities in the areas concerned, based upon the most, if I may say so, conservative figuring. We have to consider such matters seriously. My right hon. Friend's own record shows that he at least thinks that concern for the family is a matter for all of us.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

Will the Secretary of State reply to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) about opencast mining? Does he accept that opencast developments provide very few jobs and seriously disrupt the landscape and rural communities of the areas involved? He must surely accept that the time has come to review the planning regulations and planning assumptions about opencast developments by the private sector.

Mr. Gummer

I have already done that; it was one of the first things I did. I reviewed the planning arrangements for opencast developments, and transformed the nature of the proof required. The proof is now very much more difficult to get, and it is also more difficult to get opencast mining permission. We made that change not because of the Labour party but because our party is concerned about our rural areas. The effect has been dramatic; the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) is just wrong.

Mr. Robert Atkins (South Ribble)

Is it not the case that the White Paper was produced after the most extensive consultation ever undertaken the length and breadth of England, during which the Government listened above all to those who live and work in rural areas? Is it not right that this White Paper should be produced by the real party of the countryside, in contrast to what was produced on the back of an envelope by the townies opposite who represent seats in Camden and Edinburgh? Will not the White Paper create the right tone for the important debate that must follow on the future of our rural areas?

Mr. Gummer

There was more consultation on this White Paper than on almost anything that I can remember in government. My right hon. Friend is right to point out that practically nothing in the consultation stemmed from any suggestions made by the Opposition. The Labour party is unable to offer anything to country people, for it is an urban party, with no interest in the countryside except when votes are at stake.

Mr. Cynog Dafis (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North)

I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware of the deep concern felt by the farming population about the failure of young people to enter agriculture, and the consequent continuing increase in the average age of farmers. Does he recognise that it is important to have a sufficient number of people working in agriculture, not only to guarantee food production in the future but to ensure environmental protection?

Furthermore, the United Kingdom is the only country in the European Union that has no package of support to enable young people to enter the industry. Will he undertake to press the matter with the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and is there something about it in the White Paper?

Mr. Gummer

I have several times—as Minister of Agriculture, and since—considered whether such a package would be effective, and I must say that I do not think it would. Much more effective has been the reform of agricultural land tenure, which means that many more farms will be available for letting than would otherwise have been the case—clearly, what the Government and the Country Landowners Association suggested turns out to be true. One sadness is that that legislation was opposed by the Opposition, who do not understand rural life, and prove as much whenever there is the possibility of a vote.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

Does the Minister accept that many people, in my constituency and in the country as a whole, will warmly welcome the White Paper, especially its emphasis on parish councils and the new opportunities that are to be given to them to play a more active part in the daily life of their communities, and its emphasis on a sensible examination of the common agricultural policy and its impact on, for example, forestry?

Should not everyone who has a real interest in the rural community read the White Paper and take an active part in the further consultation process, so that we can build on the White Paper and expose members of the Labour party as the urban townies they are, as pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Atkins)?

Mr. Gummer

I thank my hon. Friend. I believe that, within the European Union, we can develop a common agricultural policy that is more effective in supporting the environment. We need to work with our partners because alone we would find ourselves in a conflict of subsidy. I believe that my hon. Friend will find some of our suggestions in the White Paper extremely supportive.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

Does the Minister agree that most farmers in difficult hill country are living on a knife edge, and want the Government to show that they are committed to helping hill farmers remain in production? Will he say that he recognises the concerns of farmers who are unable to maintain drystone walls, and that Government policy is in fact making that more difficult for them?

Mr. Gummer

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will agree that we have done a great deal to help farmers maintain such traditional elements, and that, in the Environment Act 1995, we took particular care to further that end. We have a long record of support for hill farmers, because there is no doubt that the countryside in the hills will remain as it is only if it is properly farmed, and animals and human beings can continue to live there. The hon. Gentleman speaks for us all when he says that hill farmers deserve the support that we give them.

Dr. Ian Twinn (Edmonton)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the urban townies on the Conservative side welcome his statement, especially the flexibility being introduced concerning the reuse of rural buildings, and the much-needed economic health that that will bring to the countryside? Does he accept that we are also watching with interest the progress of rate relief for rural shops? Many shops in our high streets suffer equally, and rate relief for them would be extremely popular.

Mr. Gummer

I am aware that many hon. Members—they are not confined to the Government side of the House—will find an excuse to raise a favourite topic even in unfavourable circumstances; but, I must tell my hon. Friend that, in a small remote village with one shop, the closure of that shop would make a huge difference that would not be paralleled in the cities.

Mr. Terry Lewis (Worsley)

How does the right hon. Gentleman square his new-found opposition to out-of-city shopping with the efforts that he has made to ensure that the Dumplington scheme in Greater Manchester has gone ahead?

Mr. Gummer

During my time as Secretary of State, I have sometimes felt it necessary to say that a development phase comes to an end, and that is what has happened—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Worsley (Mr. Lewis) may make such comments, but it is rather typical of him that he has asked a question and then does not listen to the answer.

The Dumplington scheme was decided on some time ago, the circumstances were well tested in the courts, and there was no doubt that the scheme should go ahead. I have made decisions about individual schemes throughout the country, and I have believed that some should go ahead, but many I have refused. That is what the Secretary of State for the Environment has to do to fulfil his judicial function—and the hon. Member for Worsley would do better to listen to what I am saying rather than talking to his neighbour.

Sir Kenneth Carlisle (Lincoln)

I greatly welcome the main principle behind the White Paper—to keep the countryside as a living, working place. I also welcome the thrust to increase environmental diversity. In that connection, doubling the size of our woodland in 50 years is a colossal ambition, and it was a dynamic and brave statement to make. It will make a great difference to habitats, but how will my right hon. Friend achieve that ambitious target?

Mr. Gummer

We have a whole range of programmes, not least the community forest scheme, which I support.

My hon. Friend is one of the most credible environmentalists, if not the most credible, in the House, and he will agree that we must approach the matter in many different ways.

I want to encourage farmers to do more planting, and local authorities, too, to support more planting on a wider scale. I also want to see planting in many places from which it is now excluded; that is why I hope that the green roots schemes starting in London will spread elsewhere. Over the next 50 years, we shall look to a whole range of innovative ways of doubling this nation's woodland cover—in appropriate places, not in places where it would harm wildlife.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

What, as distinct from mineral planning guidance notes, is there in the White Paper about opencast mining? How can I be assured that the wide area of green belts in my constituency will not become black belts, with all the inconvenience that that causes to our citizens?

Mr. Gummer

I have addressed that question in four different places, the first of which was the change in the planning guidance that has made opencast mining much more difficult. Secondly, by reducing the land banks that local authorities have to hold, I have stopped the blight over large areas that would otherwise be used for the extraction of gravel.

Thirdly, my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor and I have announced the landfill tax, which will make it more economic to use second-hand aggregates, and will therefore reduce the demand for virgin aggregates. Fourthly, we will ensure that national recycling schemes will increase the amount and availability of second-hand material, and will thus reduce the need for extra mining. The rural White Paper builds on our present success, and we will continue what we are doing.

Sir Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)

My right hon. Friend's announcement about the business rate relief will be warmly welcomed not only by sub-post offices, but by village shops. But should not the announcement go further, as such shops need support as well as advice? Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that advice will come from the Rural Development Commission and that he will encourage the RDC to give such advice?

Organisations such as VIRSA—which is based in Halstock and run by Derek Smith—have done so much to assist in the introduction of co-operatives. Will such organisations be given help to enable them to do their jobs better? Will we finally have a campaign directed at those people who live in villages to say that—despite all the support that is to be given—if they do not use their local shops, they will lose them? Are not those people the key figures in this matter?

Mr. Gummer

We hope to bring together all the people concerned with the matter, and that is one reason why I am determined that the White Paper should be read in the round. It must not become the sort of wish list that the Opposition constantly want. We are seeking to tap into the dynamism of our rural areas and use voluntary and other organisations more widely.

My hon. Friend is right to say that the phrase "use it or lose it" ought to be emblazoned upon every heart in rural areas. Too many people who live in country villages and drive long distances to buy all their goods then expect the local shop to be open in the middle of a snowy winter weekend to provide them with the things that they normally buy somewhere else.

Mr. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood)

The White Paper contains measures to improve access to the countryside. Does the Secretary of State accept that a great deal needs to be done to change the rhetoric into reality? I have in mind the White Paper commitment to allow public access to land sold off by the Forestry Commission, the need to ensure that the countryside stewardship scheme really guarantees new public access, and a recognition in the White Paper that the commitment to have the rights of way network in good order by 2000 may not be met. May I invite the Secretary of State to walk down that path with renewed vigour and enthusiasm?

Mr. Gummer

I want the 120,000 miles of footpaths to be open properly and conveniently for the public, and I would like to see more access in some areas. I would certainly like to see the introduction of many of the things to which the hon. Gentleman referred—if not all of them—but I want that to be done in a way that will enhance opportunities for walkers while being balanced with other countryside matters.

I am not a believer in the right to roam, because I think that it gives rights without obligations. It gives walkers the right to roam in other areas, including wild conservation areas which must be protected to allow the next generation of birds and butterflies to be produced. We must keep a balance, but I agree that access is a most important aspect.

Mr. Mark Wolfson (Sevenoaks)

I welcome the White Paper as a whole, but I wish particularly to emphasise my welcome to its emphasis on affordable housing. That is very important in areas such as mine, where we support a green belt which needs some exceptions. When my right hon. Friend is developing his policy in that area, will he pay attention to a matter of particular concern to me? The effect of pushing rents up to a market level has been that many people living in some form of public housing are on benefit of one kind or another. That is not very healthy from the point of view of families, and I would be interested in my right hon. Friend's views.

Mr. Gummer

Obviously, we must reach a balance. If rents are at a particular level, we can bring more money into the provision of supported housing. My hon. Friend is probably right to say that rents are at an appropriate level, and I have made some announcements in the past about the terms in which we will look at rents in the future. I do not think that my hon. Friend's opinions and mine will be very far apart when we get to that point.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (Surrey, East)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will understand that, although there are important social and human considerations to be borne in mind, from a landscape point of view it is pretty immaterial whether or not a house in the countryside is affordable. While I welcome the White Paper and look forward to reading it, can my right hon. Friend tell the House what it does further to protect the green belt, and particularly sites of special scientific interest?

Mr. Gummer

I have made it clear that I intend to continue the tough policy on the green belt, which I increased in toughness in my announcement on the green belt. I have every sympathy with my hon. Friend's view. One of the reasons why I intend to treat village housing differently from other housing is that, very often, it needs to be rather more expensive in its building in order to fit in with the character of the village.

We do not want the same house type built in one village in the south of England as is built in a northern village or an eastern village. There is a great deal of difference. For example, the desire to build social housing as infilling in Suffolk villages when those villages never were infilled—they always had little gaps—is a sad result of the fact that many planners are urban people who come in from outside. I hope that we will be able to meet my hon. Friend's worries.

Mr. Edward Garnier (Harborough)

I welcome the broad thrust of my right hon. Friend's statement, in particular that aspect of it which enables local authorities to retain 90 per cent. of the receipts from the sale of county farms. Can he tell me who is to decide whether the measures are likely to improve the quality of life in rural areas? Will that be something for the county council, the district council or his Department? When will the scheme come into effect? Can the money be spent only on local government schemes, or may it also be spent in partnership with private landowners?

Mr. Gummer

I am going out to consultation with all those bodies. It would be wrong of me to make decisions in advance. There is a well understood consultation procedure. I hope to see all the spending of the money done in partnerships. It is only through partnership that we get the best value for money.

Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central)

May I welcome the White Paper, and urge my right hon. Friend to look carefully at the proposals for tree planting? He and I know how much Suffolk will benefit from a few more trees. Will he examine carefully not just how many trees are planted but how many survive and thrive? Unless we make sure that enough money is spent, and care is taken to look after the trees, we will not have the numbers we want. Each year we lose them, we have to start all over again.

Mr. Gummer

That is a fitting question for the president of the Arboricultural Association. I thank my hon. Friend for it. He is right to say that, in Suffolk, where we have adjoining constituencies, we have seen far too much planting of trees which have not survived, particularly in heavy droughts such as the one we have just had. I agree that we must make sure that we get value for the planting, as well as the best value for the money.

Mr. Charles Hendry (High Peak)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's recognition that agriculture is at the core of rural life, especially in areas such as the High Peak, in spite of adverse farming conditions. I also welcome his rejection of the right to roam proposed by the Labour party, which would be devastating to many farming interests in my constituency and many others.

May I urge him to co-operate with our right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Agriculture in keeping the hill livestock compensatory allowances, which target grants so effectively into rural communities, while vigorously opposing a minimum wage, which would devastate farms and many other small rural industries?

Mr. Gummer

The right to roam is a matter of concern not only to farmers. Those who are concerned with the conservation of wildlife and want to look after landscapes of various kinds understand that, if the right to roam becomes the right to trample, which it is almost automatically, it damages the countryside. We need to balance the interests of the walker against other interests, in order that we can have a proper countryside.

As for the minimum wage, no part of the economy will be more damaged by it than the rural economy. It shows that the Labour party thinks that the only people who work in the countryside are farm workers. Many other people work in the countryside, and a minimum wage would destroy their opportunity to have a job at all. The Labour party is destructive of countryside employment.

Mr. Richard Spring (Bury St. Edmunds)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement. Does he share my view that the sustainability and viability of our rural communities and villages depend on a good democratic mix? Does he agree that county councils should be encouraged to provide affordable transportation for young rural people in pursuit of their education?

Mr. Gummer

I certainly recognise the curious system of priorities that led Suffolk county council to spend £2 million on new road signs and cut off the opportunity of 16-year-olds and others to go by bus to higher education institutions. But then, a county council run by the Liberal and Labour parties is likely to do that. I think that it is wrong.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

Will the Secretary of State come back to the questions raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang) at the beginning? Will he now come clean, and admit that many of the problems faced by rural communities, which the White Paper attempts to address, are the direct result of the deregulation policies pursued by the Government over the past 16 years?

Those include the deregulation of buses, which has deprived thousands of local communities of their only form of public transport; the promotion of out-of-town shopping centres at the expense of village shops; the promotion of opencast mining; policies that have dried up the supply of affordable homes for rent and closed village schools and small local hospitals; and a record on crime in which villages, which in the past scarcely encountered theft, drugs or violence, have been left living in fear.

On top of that, the common agricultural policy, which leads to high food prices and harms the environment, costs every family in Britain £20 a week. Unless the White Paper puts all those matters right, it is a waste of paper.

Mr. Gummer

The hon. Gentleman is not a credible defender of the countryside. In many senses, that was the worst contribution that he has made on this subject for a very long time. He does not understand that, all over the country, Labour councils are closing village schools without so much as a discussion with parents. He does not understand that, in many areas, deregulation has increased the number of buses available.

As for crime, he does not understand that the Labour party is soft on criminals. It has not supported a single improvement in the fight against crime which we have brought before the House. The hon. Gentleman has never made a speech asking for tougher sentences or more policemen supporting rural areas. Indeed, he has never made a speech about rural areas, so far as I understand.

Mr. Dobson

That is rubbish.

Mr. Gummer

I said, "so far as I understand", and if I did not understand the hon. Gentleman's speech, it is because he uses words with a curious turn. His usual concern for rural areas is a photo opportunity rather than real concern.

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